The World at War


Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel

Wilhelm Keitel was born on the family estate at Helmscherode in Brunswick on 22 September 1883. The concept of loyalty was a strong current in the upbringing of young Wilhelm and would prove to be his undoing later on. Although Keitel was an intelligent boy he was only an average student. Initially only horses and hunting held his interest but like so many of his generation the powerful army of the new Reich exercised a strong attraction on him and he soon decided on a military career. It was a fateful decision that would lead him not only to the highest rank in the army, but to death on the gallows.

Keitel joined the only Brunswicker battery of the 46th Prussian Field Artillery Regiment in 1901. The young lieutenant soon proved to be an industrious and efficient officer with a special for organizational duties. He was appointed Staff-Captain of the regiment responsible for all matters pertaining to mobilization.

At the outbreak of the First World War Keitel went into action with his regiment and was wounded by shrapnel in September 1914 though not seriously. In March 1915 the great turning point of Keitelís career came when he was called to the General Staff. It is of interest to note that Keitel did not have to go through the traditional schooling required of the Prussian General Staff but received his appointment due to his hard work and organizational skills. His first staff position was as First General Staff Officer (Ia) of a reserve infantry division and in 1917-1918 (Ia) of the Marine Corps serving in Flanders. Much to his displeasure, Keitel was obliged by the mutinous Marines to display the red flag of revolution on his official car as he tried to arrange the details of his Corps retreat at the end of the war.

Feeling that his responsibility was to the Army that he loved, Keitel eagerly accepted the invitation of Hans von Seeckt to be one of the 100,000 man professional army of the new republic which formed from the ashes of Imperial Germany. In the rank of Colonel he served in the Truppenamt (Troop Office) which replaced the General Staff which was banned under the Treaty of Versailles as branch leader for Organization (T2). During this period which lasted until 1933 Keitel spent considerable time in the Soviet Union developing and testing tactics and equipment in conjunction with the Red Army.

It was while Keitel was on leave from the Army that he learned on January 30, 1933 that the aged President of the Republic, Field-Marshal von Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler to be Chancellor of the Reich. While Keitel was not happy about this development, the President was also the Commander in Chief and his orders had to be obeyed. A time of unrest began for Keitel with his promotion to Major-General in October 1933. In October 1934 he was appointed commander of the future 22nd Infantry Division which was secretly forming in Bremen. This was his last troop command. It was during this time that he directly experienced the growing friction between the Army and the SA, Hitlerís party army which had now grown to over two million men.

Like most higher officers, Keitel believed that a coup against Hitler was being planned by Captain Ernst Röhm, the Chief of Staff of the SA and a man who displayed open contempt for the future Führer. Keitel made no objection to the bloody murders of the SA leadership on June 30, 1934. Most telling however was his silence in regard to the murders by the SS of two retired Generals. Schleicher and von Bredow. At some time in 1933 Keitel changed his opinion of Hitler from one of disdain to one of open admiration. Hitlerís ability to draw even those who previously hated him under his spell has never been explained. Keitel was to remain deeply impressed with Hitler for the rest of his life.

In 1935 Keitel was appointed head of the Wehrmachtsamt or Armed Forces Office which had jurisdiction over all three branches of the Military. As chief of the Wehrmachtsamt, and now Lieutenant-General he believed that his most hoped for dream was near to fulfillment, that is the establishment of a single overall command of all three services. This plan came to grief with the objections of Hermann Göring to the loss of any control over the Luftwaffe.

Although the personal relationship between Keitel and General von Blomberg was somewhat distant, Keitelís son, Karl Heinz and Blombergís daughter, Dorle, became engaged at the beginning of 1938. Blombergís nearly simultaneous disgrace and fall from power as a result of an unfortunate marriage was a cause of embarrassment for Keitel but did nothing to sideline his career. Neither did the fall of General von Fritsch who was framed by the SS with a spurious charge of homosexuality. With the departure of Blomberg and Fritsch whose loyalties lay with the Army rather than with Hitler, the prospects for more pliable officers such as Keitel were enhanced. Keitel soon became involved once more with the design of a unified command structure for the Wehrmacht. Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) was formed and Keitel, finding increasing favor with Hitler, was appointed as its head. It was as a result of Keitelís recommendation that Colonel-General von Brauchitsch was selected as the new Commander in Chief of the Army. Brauchitsch was another of the more pliable officers Hitler was looking for.

It is about this time, spring of 1938, that the series of events for which Keitel would later stand convicted of war crimes, specifically drawing up plans for and carrying out a war of aggression, offending against peace and crimes against humanity, were set into motion. First Austria then Czechoslovakia came under Nazi rule with Keitel doing all he could to expedite matters. Keitel voiced no fundamental objections to the campaigns against Poland, Denmark-Norway, the Low Countries or France. Indeed the fall of France had an overwhelming effect on all the Generals including Keitel who stated that Hitler was "the greatest General of all times" ("der größte Feldherr aller Zeiten", later mocked secretly as "Gröfaz")

In July 1940, soon after his promotion to Field Marshal, Keitel was alarmed to learn that Hitler was planning a campaign against Russia. He did not object on moral grounds but rather on the fact that the Army would not be ready for such a trying campaign before 1942. Ever the loyal soldier he persevered in his duty to the Führer and launched into the planning of the campaign. Every traditional restraint on warfare was abandoned by both side in this titanic struggle in the east. Keitel signed those orders which originated with Hitler that decreed that captured commissars were to be shot, the orders that absolved individual soldiers for war crimes against Slavs and other equally inhumane directives. Keitel played an important part in the defeat of Colonel Count von Stauffenbergís attempted coup against Hitler July 20, 1944, countermanding any orders issuing from the conspirators in Berlin. At the end, as the Third Reich crumbled around him, Keitel fled to Holstein with his staff where he was arrested by the British and imprisoned awaiting trial at Nuremberg. Keitel accepted his responsibility in the crimes of the Third Reich which he played an important part in expediting and his defense lawyer found it difficult to defend him. Keitel had only one last request, that he be shot by firing squad as befits a soldier of his rank. This was denied and he hanged at dawn October 16th, 1946.

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